You know what the problem is?”, Adnan told me once. “Your kind of international organizations, you talk a lot, but in the end, you don’t do a thing.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. Considering that countries like his tend to behave much more brutally towards their own citizens than towards us internationals. As long as we don’t go too far, or pry too deep. Adnan is in jail now, in Azerbaijan. For making a video blog that, with the use of sarcastic humor, denounced the blatant corruption of the regime that rules his country. For the way he chose to help his society move forward: for exposing, for putting what is wrong up for public discussion. In short: for journalism. And for all our talks, diplomatic demarches, behind-the-scenes lobbying or other self-important behavior we foreigners like to spend our working hours on: there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it.
I work for a different organization now, in a different country. But I think Adnan’s point was slightly more universal in nature. Often, we show a lot of pretense. We internationals, we come in full of ambition, and filled with hope of contributing to change. And all too often, we tend to overestimate the impact we can make.
Reality today is (or perhaps it has always been that way) that all the UN’s, NDI’s, OSCE’s and Press Now’s can only do their work in yet another a fishy smelling country as long and as far as the local powers allow them to. And the dictator-of-the-day does not usually bow for fancy sounding acronyms of yet another expat working for yet another foreign club, trying to tell him how to run his affairs. He allows us to be there only as long as our presence serves his own aim: to look good, or at least to look non-sanctionable, in the eyes of the West. And to be allowed into the company of world leaders, at the prestigious tables of international conferences.
Geopolitical logic usually dictates restraint from the side of the free and democratic West. Because most of the time, there are bigger interests at stake than the occasional blogger. And it is not very common for the stars to align themselves in such a way that morals and interests both call for international intervention.
Azerbaijan, a small country tucked between Russia and Iran, important to the West for its oil and gas, and its position convenient for our Western military and intelligence efforts in the region, is not likely to be the beneficiary of such an alignment any time soon. That is, as long as the regime doesn’t start shooting or torturing too many dissidents. Moderate shooting and torturing, as has been the case for many years now, is just fine though. Just ask any Western diplomat in Baku about the priority given back home to their weekly messages on human rights, or about the seniority of their desk officer in their foreign ministry.
So the Azeri’s will have to forge their own destiny. And all we can do is to cheer them on a little bit.
My current place of work, Iraq, is a different story altogether. Here, some in the West did believe morals and interest went hand in hand tightly enough to warrant interference. So, in 2003, we marched in, ousted Saddam and started to restore Iraqi society into a pre-Baathist, secular, civilized and intellectual state.
How wrong we were.
Today in Iraq, human rights activists, civil society workers and journalists can only do their work as long as the thing they denounce, is a thing of the other group, sect or tribe. Restraints and oppression do not, or not yet, come from the side of the state, like in Azerbaijan. They come from group leaders, rogue fighters, increasingly corrupt businessmen slash politicians. The importance of group-identity, ethnicity and religion is on the rise; secular, democratic thinking, working for the common good, is under siege, and fading.
And again, journalists pay the price. They either conform, or they are at constant risk. Independent media are rare; telling inconvenient truths does not come with a reward. It will get you killed, or jailed.
So is the work of international organizations in countries like Azerbaijan and Iraq pointless? Certainly not. But there are real lessons to be learned about what we do, and how we go about it. For the sake of those that really matter: the lone individuals that stick their necks out in their own country.